June 1, 2010
A simple cotton T-shirt may one day be converted into tougher, more comfortable body armor for soldiers or police officers.
Led by Dr. Xiaodong Li, researchers at the University of South Carolina (USC), collaborating with others from China and Switzerland, dramatically increased the toughness of a T-shirt by combining the carbon in the shirt’s cotton with boron, the third hardest material on earth. The result is a lightweight shirt reinforced with boron carbide, the same material used to protect tanks.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the ACS Petroleum Research Fund and the USC NanoCenter, Dr. Xiaodong Li, USC College of Engineering and Computing Distinguished Professor in Mechanical Engineering, co-authored the recent article on the research results published in the journal, Advanced Materials.
The scientists started with plain, white T-shirts that were cut into thin strips and dipped into a boron solution. The strips were later removed from the solution and heated in an oven. The heat changes the cotton fibers into carbon fibers, which react with the boron solution and produce boron carbide.
The result is a fabric that’s lightweight but tougher and stiffer than the original T-shirt, yet flexible enough that it can be bent, said Dr. Li.